Many hipsters relish butt-ugly folk art of the sort that decorates the cover of Star Pimp's Docudrama, but only for its kitsch value. The awfulness of such product -- or, more accurately, the awfulness of hanging it upon one's wall -- is what's desirable about it. Well, be you certain that the craftsmen behind those driftwood buffaloes, those sad clown statuettes, those sacred hearts of Jesus on velvet, put just as much time and care into their work as, say, Jackson Pollock did his. And while there's merit in smirky, ironic appreciation (or at least a good cheap laugh), we often overlook the fact that some folk artists are far more creative for their lack of sophistication. To misappropriate Philip Glass' elitist yawp about art vs. pop, the aahtist "invents units of meaning," whereas the mere popster doles out the pat in endless reconfiguration. Well, by our cosmopolitan composer/cabbie's definition, what could be more inventive than blowing it? Than creating your own competence by not knowing what you're doing? Than scaring the piss out of the rest of us with your portraiture, as painted by your crabby hand?
Star Pimp's music has this sort of charm and catchall. The San Francisco-based noise-brat quartet assembles meaning out of gristle; alternates between pretty flourishes and bouts of nausea to build vocabulary. Take Docudrama's intro (on "Blood on the Mountain"). What starts out as a minor-key melody played against alternate drones (talk about doling out the pat) is transmuted by the mere addition of bass line and drums into a major-key structure with artful minor-suggestive modulations. In layman's terms, Star Pimp fuck shit up -- and probably didn't need Glass' permission to do so. (And for those of you rightfully unconcerned with the distinctions between art and pop or art and kitsch, the very next track, "Mighty and Superior," starts out with a big, dumb John Bonham-style drum riff.) Here's your perplexity -- the simultaneous presence of catchy, unpleasant licks (however indebted to Sonic Youth and other no wave spawn), ape-man physicality (though not so Led Zep), top-heavy intellect (wince away from song titles like "Recalcitrance"), and humor. I don't know much Spanish, but I do know that "Labios Azules" sounds gross. And whatever the hell "Polanski Reprise" is actually about, the title alone makes me happy. Of course, Docudrama's ultimate grace -- like that of most butt-ugly folk art -- is that we need not lend it chin-stroking contemplation, like we would some vomitous Pollock or vapid Glass. Feel free to get sick without sweating the artistic merit.
-- Michael Batty
Joe McPhee Quartet
Legend Street One
Joe McPhee and David Prentice
Even the most inspired players approach improv-based recording sessions with a degree of trepidation. Multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee remarks in the notes to Legend Street One: "There might be more than a little concern that this thing might not fly." His initial fears stemmed from the fact that the quartet members -- Frank Lowe (tenor sax), David Prentice (violin), and Charles Moffett (drums) -- had never actually played together as a unit before the studio date. But the musicians did what all great improvisers must: They put aside their apprehensions and gave themselves over to what they call "magical" or "spiritual" elements (i.e., whatever happened, happened). Due to the profound aspirations of making music like this, recordings tend to succeed or fail on a grand scale. Under McPhee's creative leadership, which largely consisted of guiding the various moods and methods of each improv via verbal cues, both CDs triumph.
Fundamentally, Legend flourishes through McPhee's reconfigurations of the quartet into subgroups of trios, duos, and lone soloists. This arrangement capitalizes on the distinctive voices of each player and their seasoned collaborative skills. The timbral shifts effected by the sequence of the disc -- from the dueling saxes of the opener ("Loweville") to the sax and violin duet ("What We Do") to the emotionally riveting, full-blown quartet ("Memorium") to Moffett's intensely focused drum solo ("For Panama, Parts 1&2"), and so on -- emphasize a structural and conceptual development often missing from through-composed albums.
Inside Out, a set of duets by Prentice (on violin and jew's-harp) and McPhee (on soprano sax, alto clarinet, and gong), was spontaneously documented in the evening after the quartet sessions had ended. Most of the recording took place outdoors where the duo improvised conversational melodies with the birds and bugs. At first, producer Robert Rusch felt, "Since we had already produced enough high-quality music to finish our original projects, I was ready to, shall we say, humor Joe." A couple of hours later, he exulted, "I knew we had experienced an inspiring but chance event." The disc includes "every note and chirp" in order of appearance, and according to Rusch, "There were no false starts, interruptions, or second takes." Although the quiet spaces with more bird than reed may engage the ear less than the deeply textural interplay on the quartet disc, one can't help but marvel, as if eavesdropping.
-- Sam Prestianni
The Greatest Hits
You have to respect Clint Black for being country without wallowing in the dreadful empathetic slop favored by the post-John Michael Montgomery guys -- those milquetoast men with their wheedling public service announcements for oblivious husbands everywhere. Unlike them, Black will never presume to tell us what she needs or how she feels. Neither will he prattle on about his heart as if it were a separate entity blessed with free will and a nasty reputation.
Black is not easily classified. For some time, this singular, lonesome western voice has been battling the side effects of Hollywood Buddhism in his songs (not a big theme in Nashville). Even his marriage sets him apart -- his wife, Lisa Hartman (Lord, those fancy Tinseltown ways!), is not only a show-biz personality in her own right, but one who makes a living outside of country music.
He seems to get picked on, unfairly since he has such a distinct writer's voice. His once-excessive stage show has been the source of several industry jokes. Maybe it's the bewildering forays into cereal box advertising or the spandex cycling shorts you might spot him wearing on Entertainment Tonight. Or is it the twinkling, cartoon handsomeness he bears, like he ordered his face ready-to-wear from the Roy Rogers Shop? This good-natured and obliging man often looks like he's ringmaster of a circus that's getting away from him -- more true of his later songs.
The early hits on this collection, written with longtime collaborator Hayden Nicholas, are thoughtful, traditional, and sweet midtempo retro C&W. Some fine early songs, like "Nobody's Home," are not included. Also missing is the curious "When My Ship Comes In," a song that foreshadows his subsequent obsessions: Time, Action, and The Moment. "Wherever You Go," "No Time to Kill," and even "A Good Run of Bad Luck" all mark Black's era of Anxious Riddles as the space-time continuum concertinas around him. There's a compulsive mind at work, looping concepts into intricate patterns as he puzzles his way out of this sense of disconnection. Country music has always liked its wordplay, but Black does it in eight dimensions, and makes your brain hurt.
Afterward, you'll welcome the mindless joy of "Summer's Comin' " and the charming drone of his current hit, "Like the Rain." The only uncharacteristic stinker here is the clenched duet "A Bad Goodbye," where he churns out some teardrop soup with Wynonna. It's not a bad ballad, but it's of that same flaccid multiformat genre that's ruining Reba's country cred. This collection highlights Black's range at the expense of some great songs that sound, well, similar. Range is way overrated.
-- Cath Carroll